In a world where musical fads shift in and out of favour as quickly as the week’s latest gossip surrounding Lindsay Lohan, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the term ‘Nu Folk’ was perhaps a cunning media-manufactured oxymoron to gain an opportunistic new band a few extra column inches. English folk songs have been the bedrock of our civilisation for centuries and inspire images of campfires, wistful storytelling and gentle, beautifully constructed melodies, played on a variety of acoustic instruments and led by ethereal, harmonious voices. But dig a little deeper and a number of younger musicians have been revisiting a traditional folk sound and giving it a contemporary makeover. Londoners Mumford & Sons have been around on the fringes of the capital’s Nu Folk scene since late 2007, playing alongside the likes of songstress Laura Marling, Noah and The Whale and Johnny Flynn and The Sussex Wit. From starting their own club nights, (with performances often spilling out into the street outside) to gigging solidly across the UK, the band have built up a formidable following, helping to send their debut album Sigh No More into the UK top 5 and No.1 in several other countries around the globe. And their continuing ascent to world domination shows no signs of stopping, with a performance at this year’s Glastonbury widely regarded to be the highlight of the festival and last month, a highly deserved Mercury Music Prize nomination.
High praise for a sound so rooted in tradition then. Is bassist and backing vocalist Ted Dwane at all surprised by the band’s huge commercial success?
“In a way... yes and no. We’ve been touring as a band for around two years, so really it feels like a slow and steady rise in fortunes, luckily with no steps back” explains Ted, as we sit in the superbly stocked whisky bar in Brighton’s Hotel du Vin. “But I don’t think any of us really anticipated selling as many albums as we have,” he grins “so in that sense, it’s been totally amazing”. So the transition from tiny basement clubs to playing to thousands of fans hasn’t daunted you? “Well, we used to joke when we were playing to 40 people about what it’d actually be like to play our music at a big venue like the Shepherds Bush Empire – and now we’re actually doing it!!” he laughs. (Ironically the band recently sold out not one, but two consecutive nights at the venue...)
In case you’re not familiar with it, or rather you’ve been observing a self-imposed radio silence this summer, the band’s sound incorporates elements of traditional four-part harmony, precisely plucked banjo reels, often backed up by a simple (but fast paced) driving beat, giving the songs a frantic, yet perfect foundation for singer Marcus Mumford’s intuitive lyrics. As a result, singles such as Little Lion Man, The Cave and more recently Roll Away Your Stone ease themselves into your consciousness and simply refuse to leave. Has being rooted in the Capital’s ‘folk scene’ helped to solidify your fanbase and have you found that the reaction differs from city to city?
“Different cities definitely have really different vibes, but whenever we play in London it always feels like we’re playing to a really diverse audience.” explains Ted “It ranges from younger fans to older people who have seen us in the past at smaller venues, but no matter what the size of audience,” he smiles “it always feels like a sense of occasion, rather like a village fete!”
With a list of influences from Crosby, Stills, Nash and more contemporary bands such as Kings Of Leon, I ask Ted about what bought the band together and when they realised something magical was happening.
“Marcus (lead singer) and Ben (keyboardist/backing vocals) met at school and I joined them slightly after that. We were just really into playing together and started a little club night at a pub called the Bosun’s Locker on the Kings Road. It really felt like there was a great musical community starting to form around there, which just clicked. As soon as we sat down together (for their first real recording session), we knew we had become a band because what came out was unique to us four as individuals.” Out of this initial session came their first band songs: Awake My Soul and White Blank Page, highlights on the band’s debut album. All they needed now was to find a like-minded producer who could capture the bands frenetic, yet soulful live performance.
Enter Markus Dravs, the man who was partly responsible for helping the likes of Arcade Fire, Brian Eno and Bjork to realise their sonic potential. Oh… and a relatively unknown band called Coldplay. So what was it was like to work with a man with such an impressive production CV?
“Markus was absolutely amazing to work with” beams Ted “and he really helped us pull together all the ideas and sounds we had to give the songs a sense of solidity. He also really helped us with our equipment too- I had this really knackered old bass, which was literally falling apart from all the touring we were doing!”
As we finish our first dram, (a fabulously warming yet sublimely smooth Talisker 18 Years Old) our conversation turns to whisky. Do you have any whisky related stories or high jinks on tour?
“Actually yes!” he grins “We were doing a series of gigs across the US a while back (the ‘Fee Fi Fo Fum’ Tour) with both Laura Marling (also nominated for this year’s Mercury Music Prize) and Johnny Flynn- and our tour manager suddenly got this really nasty stomach bug. As we were all sharing the same tour bus, we really didn’t want to catch it. We thought that by drinking large ‘cups’ of Bells, we’d stay healthy and the whisky would have medicinal properties. It actually turned out that the TM just had a stomach flu and we all ended up just being really hungover and wrecked from the whisky, so that idea didn’t really work out at all as planned!”
Bells-related misdemeanours aside, the band’s busy touring schedule has also seen them play a comprehensive tour of the Scottish Highlands and Islands. “We had some incredible gigs on Stornoway and Harris and then took a beautiful drive down to the Glenlivet Estate, which was very special indeed. It felt like we were right in the middle of whisky country” grins Ted. So what was the dram that really switched you onto whisky for the first time?
“It would have to be Caol Ila. I really fell in love with the peaty flavour, it’s one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever tasted. A girlfriend once bought me a bottle and we’ve been pretty much inseparable ever since...the whisky that is!”
As Ted and I drain our final drams down, we toast to the band’s continued successes. What’s in store for the band this coming autumn? “We have lots more touring now including Europe as well as lots of festivals, then our biggest UK tour, which will cap off a brilliant year for us” explains Ted, but fortunately we’ve been writing songs on the road and we’re starting to play three to four new ones in the set now, so hopefully we’ll be working on our next album too.”
If you haven’t yet had a chance to see Mumford & Sons live, some bands manage to perfectly capture the soundtrack of a summer. And Ted, Marcus, Winston and Ben have more than achieved this with their wonderful debut album, Sigh No More.
Try a large dram of Caol Ila 25 Years Old and settle into your favourite chair, listening to one of the album’s standout tracks White Blank Page and you’ll soon see why the world has fallen so deeply for the UK’s favourite musical sons.